26th August 1856. Mauve.

Mauve was named from the French for Mallow: Mauveine.

Today in 1856 [Sir] William Perkin was granted a patent ‘for a new colour matter for dyeing with a lilac or purple colour stuffs of silk, cotton’.

Perkin a student of Augustus W. Hofmann, had stumbled on the colour, whilst trying to synthesize artificial quinine as a cure for malaria, when he was left with a murky residue.(1)

Fifty Years’ later he described how he nearly threw it away, when he realized the solution produced a strangely beautiful colour.

In fact he had produced the first aniline dye made from coal tar: Mauve. Now the inconsistent and unpredictable use of natural dyes could be replaced by the ‘artificials’, which were always of uniform shade, thus leading to a revolution in dyes and fashion, and scientific chemistry.

M0014185 Coal Tar Colour Works at Greenford in 1858 & 1873. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Coal Tar Colour Works at Greenford in 1858 & 1873. Plant belonging to W. H. Perkin and his brother, T. D. Perkin. 19th Century Journal of the Society of Arts Published: 1877-1879 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Perkin’s  Coal Tar Colour Works at Greenford Green, near Harrow in 1858 & 1873. It was sited near the Grand Junction Canal.

Chemistry and science were little valued in the 19th century being regarded only of dilettante interest. So Perkin’s  father wanted him to be an architect, rather than ‘messing about’ with chemicals.

In fact Perkin unusually, went on to combine science and manufacturing, making a fortune in the process.

Now Mauve was the fashionable colour in Britain, helped by its use by Queen Victoria, and much in demand to dye the Crinoline and Paisley shawls.(2)


Marriage of Victoria’s daughter, the Princess Royal 25.1.1858, showing the Queen wearing a delicate shade of mauve. Painting by John Philips.

However dyers at the time were sceptical as artificial dyes were expensive compared with the ‘naturals’. Also there was the problem of making them fast on cotton as well as wool and silk.

The process of making dyes ‘fast’ required a mordant to fix the colour, the main one being Alum, which after Henry VIII fell out with the Pope, supplies ceased, and we were forced to find native sources.

Black which was more resistant to colour loss, thus became the cheapest and most widespread colour until artificial dyes.

In the early 19thc, John Constable’s pigments would have come from natural products such as indigo from the Indian plant of the same name.

However dyes made from madder root, were always the most popular, and this was synthesized into Alizarin which soon replaced Mauve as the ‘new’ colour.(3)

Mauve eventually became the colour of half-mourning, a trend set by Victoria after Prince Albert’s death. Fashion is a fickle jade!

(1)  Hofmann had been invited to be the first Superintendent of the Royal College of Chemistry by Prince Albert. He was one of the first to appreciate the importance of coal tar, a by-product of the expanding gas industry, which included Benzene.

(2) Punch Magazine mocked it as ‘mauve measles’, noting one of the first symptoms …’consists in the eruption of a measly rash of ribbons above the head and neck’.

Mauve was also used for the penny post.

(3) Stone Age man, the Chinese and Egyptians, had used natural dyes from red and yellow ochre

The Romans had used the rare Tyrian purple dye, Imperial Purple, made from the murex a mollusc, worth more than its weight in gold.

Ref: How one man invented a colour that changed the world. Simon Garfield.

Ref: victorianweb.org/science/perkins. Pic Images. Wellcome Library, London.

Ref: chemistrydaily.com/chemistry/net.




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About colindunkerley

My name is Colin Dunkerley who having spent two years in the Royal Army Pay Corps ploughed many a barren industrial furrow until drawn to the 'chalk-face' as a teacher, now retired. I have spent the last 15 years researching all aspects of life in Britain since Roman times.

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